Power tools have been making our lives easier for 150 years. While there are always new, innovative tools coming onto the market, many people have an interest in the power tools of an earlier age.
There are many places to find vintage power tools if you’ve got the time, money, and interest.
Whether for sentimental or practical reasons, there are many people who buy vintage power tools.
Collectors, historians, and museum curators are probably the most common, but often someone may just be looking for a tool they used in the past that they’d like to use again.
Early Sources of Power for Tools
Long before electricity powered our tools, humans were finding ways to increase the speed and efficiency of their tools. The desire to work more efficiently led to tools augmented with devices like wheels, pulleys, or belts.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, power tools relied primarily on manpower, wind power, or waterpower. Even though hand tools still required a person to provide the power, these tools brought about great improvements in construction and manufacturing.
As far back as the neolithic era, which dates back to 10,000 B.C., primitive drills that utilized bowstrings were used to make beads (source).
The ancient Egyptians developed the lathe, often considered the godfather of modern power tools. This two-person machine used rope to turn the wood and a sharp implement to cut it. The Romans improved upon this design by adding a turning bow, and then craftsmen developed a pedal in the Middle Ages.
The next major improvement came with the steam engine. Once electric motors became common, they replaced the steam engine, and now computers can control the lathe. In many ways, tracing the history of the lathe is tracing the history of power tools in general (source).
The Industrial Revolution
It wasn’t just lathing that saw great advancement during the Industrial Revolution. During the First Industrial Revolution (beginning in 1760), many factories used complex systems of belts and drives to power their machines. Water wheels were the initial source of power until the steam engine took their place.
The power tools we know today are the result of the invention of the electric motor and electric distribution networks during the Second Industrial Revolution (beginning in 1870).
Beginning in 1880, these smaller, more portable motors truly revolutionized tools and how we use them. Suddenly tools weren’t just for factories but became available for home use as well.
The first modern power tool was invented in 1895 by the German company C. & E. Fein. They combined the power of an electric motor with manual drills, and thus the electric drill, and the modern power tool was born (source).
Types of Vintage Power Tools
In order to fully understand what exactly qualifies as a power tool, let’s look at the various types.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a power tool like any tool that operates with an electric motor. While early electric tools had to be plugged in, these days battery-powered tools are just as common. Your standard drill, power screwdriver, or circular saw are all examples of electric tools.
The earliest electric power tools were built by the C. & E. Fein company starting in 1895 when they invented the electric drill. In 1917, the Black and Decker Manufacturing Company improved upon the Fein idea by designing an electric drill with a pistol grip and trigger switch, paving the way for all modern electric drills.
Carbon arc welding using an electrical current to fuse metal was developed in the 1890s before it was supplanted by stick welding in the early 1900s. Stick welding used a flux to shield the weld with gas until gas metal arc welding was developed (source).
Though water and steam-powered tools preceded them, these electric tools mark the first true power tools, and these earliest models are quite rare these days.
Combustion tools are powered by gasoline or a gasoline-oil mixture. These tools are usually associated with lawn care, such as a weed eater or lawnmower (though electric versions of these tools are quite common as well). While often lumped in with power tools, true power tools are powered by electric motors.
Compressed Air Tools
Compressed air tools, also called pneumatic tools, use an air compressor or carbon dioxide cartridges to power a motor that drives the tool. Jackhammers, nail guns, and pneumatic jacks are all examples of compressed air tools (source). While technically not true power tools, they do often require some form of electricity (to power the air compressor, for example).
Who Buys Vintage Power Tools?
Depending on their age and condition, vintage power tools may not have much practical use, but can still cost quite a bit. So why would anyone want to buy them? Well, there are a variety of reasons.
If they’ve been well-maintained, some vintage power tools can still be used for their intended purpose. Larger tools like drill presses and table saws can be restored and refurbished to working order and, due to their size and sturdy construction, may work just as well as their newer counterparts. This is especially true of tools made in the second half of the 20th century, which were truly built to last.
Smaller, hand-sized tools tend to wear out faster, and may not be worth the money when newer versions exist if you’re looking for a tool to in working order. However, they are also usually significantly cheaper than larger tools so, if you’re a collector, don’t discount them just because they aren’t in working order.
Aside from actually using them, many people collect vintage power tools for the same reasons they collect other antiques, such as vintage furniture or clothes. Maybe the tools remind them of the time they spent with a parent or grandparent as a child. Some people like to preserve these tools as part of our shared history.
Some collectors just like the look and feel of vintage power tools. They can be great decorative pieces for your home or office, particularly if you work in a field that is related to power tools. Many people enjoy the challenge of restoring old tools as well.
Where to Buy Vintage Power Tools
There are many places to buy vintage power tools, but your standard big-box hardware store is not going to be one of them. Stores like Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and Lowe’s may have all of the latest-and-greatest tools, but they aren’t going to carry even slightly older models, much less vintage tools from the 1950s or earlier.
Places to Buy Vintage Power Tools
If there is a local mom-and-pop style hardware store in your area, you may be able to find vintage tools there. Even if they don’t carry them regularly, they may have access to them and could help you find something if there’s a specific tool you’re looking for. At the least, they may be able to point you in the right direction.
Some dealers specifically buy and sell vintage tools. You may be lucky enough to have a dealer in your area but, even if you don’t, there are many that operate online. By simply entering a “vintage tool dealer” into a Google search, you can find many options for buying and selling vintage tools.
Garage sales, estate sales, and auctions can be hit or miss but, with perseverance, you can find some hidden treasures. Many times the items you find in these sales may need restoration, but if you’ve got the time and ability, you may just end up with a bargain on your hands.
Online marketplaces are probably the most surefire way to find vintage power tools. Online auction sites like eBay, Bonanza, and Ebid often have listings for just about anything you can imagine. Of course, you’ll likely be bidding against other collectors, so tools purchased this way may not be the most affordable options.
Etsy is another great resource for antiques of all kinds, including vintage power tools. Etsy is a seller’s market that allows users to buy and sell handmade crafts, clothes, antiques, and many other goods.
Amazon, the internet’s largest online marketplace, has its own warehouses full of goods, but they also allow users to set up their own Amazon shops to sell their own goods. While this might not be the best place to find vintage power tools, if there’s a specific piece you’re looking for, it might be a good idea to check in on Amazon every now and then.
Craigslist essentially acts as online classified ads, with dedicated sites for hundreds of cities around the world. Searching for the tool you’re after on Craigslist sites near you may help you find what you’re looking for.
Building Relationships with Other Collectors
One great method for acquiring vintage power tools that many people may not immediately think of is building relationships with other collectors.
If you have a local dealer, getting to know them may be the key to getting those rare tools you’re after. By establishing a relationship, they’ll know what you’re looking for and can stay on the lookout. They also may be willing to part with a piece of their collection if it’s going to someone they know and trust.
There are also collector groups you can join, where you can meet and converse with collectors from all over. The two biggest groups in the United States are the Mid West Tool Collectors Association (source) and the Early American Industries Association (source).
Joining groups like these can offer a great resource for learning about vintage power tools as well as buying and selling them.
The Value of Vintage Power Tools
The price of a vintage tool can range from very cheap to prohibitively expensive. It’s important to have an understanding of the cost of a piece in order to make sure you’re getting it for a fair price.
Determining the Value of a Tool
There are several factors that contribute to the value of a vintage tool. The age of the tool is probably the most important aspect. You would likely never see an ancient tool like the ones mentioned above outside of a museum, but it makes sense that a lathe from thousands of years ago would be pretty expensive.
But even when dealing with more modern tools, the age is going to be pretty important. You could expect a tool from the 1800s to fetch a higher price than a similar tool from the 1960s. The older the tool, the more historical significance it has, which will drive up the price.
The second factor is closely related to the first, and that’s the rarity of the piece. It makes sense that the older the tool, the rarer it is. But, even with vintage tools from the post-World War II era, rarity is an important factor.
It could be the first edition of a particular tool, or perhaps there just weren’t very many of that tool made in the first place. Regardless of the reason, the rarer the tool, the more you can expect to pay.
The next thing to consider when gauging the price of a vintage power tool is the condition of the piece. A tool that’s been well-maintained or restored and is in working order will cost significantly more than one in poor condition that needs a lot of TLC to return it to its former glory.
Another aspect that may figure into the price that isn’t as obvious is how many owners it has had. Much like you’d want to know how many owners a car had before you bought it, knowing how many owners a tool has had can give you insight into how well it has been maintained.
If you’re buying from a dealer or collector, you’re likely to see a rating system attached to the piece that will give an indication as to its quality known as The Fine Tool Journal Classification System.
This scale rates the tool on several factors, including whether or not it’s usable if it needs repair, how worn it is, and how much rust is present. The scale, from worst condition to best, is as follows: Poor (P), Fair (Fr), Good- (G-), Good (G), Good+ (G+), Fine (F), and New (N).
Though it isn’t perfect and can be subjective, the Fine Tool Journal Classification System is a good way to get a quick idea of the quality of the tool and whether or not it’s worth the price.
Other dealers use a number scale, with a rating of 1-10 being basically junk tools to a rating of 90-100 representing a new tool that’s still in the box. Again, these ratings can be subjective, but they offer a nice overview of the quality of the piece (source).
Valuable Vintage Power Tools
As mentioned, age and rarity are going to be key characteristics when it comes to the price of vintage power tools. The earliest models are likely to be the rarest, and therefore the most expensive.
The early tools from C. & E. Fein are quite rare today, especially in America. As such, they can be very expensive. If you do stumble across one of the early Fein drills, you can expect to pay well over $2000 for it.
Perhaps due to their widespread use in America at the time, the early Black and Decker tools are considerably cheaper. These early drills usually sell for less than $200, and some may even still be in working order with a little refurbishing.
Tabletop tools from the mid-century were quite sturdily built and, as such, you may be able to find working models. A Craftsman Bench Top Lathe from the 1950s may sell for $300. Likewise, a Craftsman table saw from the same era can be expected to sell for around $200.
Smaller tools such as drills, electric screwdrivers, or nail guns from the 1950s or later are generally quite affordable in the $20-$50 range.
If you’re looking for a bargain on tools that may be vintage but not necessarily antique, garage and estate sales are the best bet for usable vintage power tools. Though it may take perseverance to find what you’re looking for, people selling tools in these venues often don’t even know or care how much it’s actually worth; they’re just trying to get rid of it.
If you’re in the market for vintage power tools, there are many avenues to explore, such as online marketplaces, antique stores, vintage tool dealers, and garage and estate sales.
You should expect to pay more for pieces that are in good, well-maintained condition, but if you’re handy and don’t mind restoring them yourself, there are sure bargains to be found.
If you’re looking for power tools that are in working order that you intend to actually use, vintage power tools may not be the best option. Depending on the age, condition, and price, it may be more affordable to just buy a new tool.
However, if you’re looking for an item to display in your home, workshop, store, or museum, vintage power tools can add a great deal of sentimental charm.